Is the royal prayer outdated?

November 24, 2016 23:31

On 9 September, Her Majesty the Queen will be celebrating the fact that she will, that day, have become Britain's longest reigning monarch, overtaking the record set by Queen Victoria (her great-great-grandmother) of 63 years and 216 days.

In places of worship up and down the land, prayers will be offered to mark this occasion. They will be well-deserved. Even by die-hard republicans, the example that Elizabeth II has set, of well-nigh flawless public duty, cannot be denied. Now in her ninetieth year, she has selflessly devoted practically her entire adult life to the service of this country. The Movement for Reform Judaism has already released the text of a special prayer to mark the forthcoming royal milestone , and no doubt other synagogal bodies will follow suit.

It is a peculiarity of British Jewry that it makes a very public display of its devotion to the Royal Family. My American friends find this decidedly odd, not to say disconcerting. No synagogue that I have ever attended in the USA (where I worked for a number of years) includes prayers for the American president and/or government in its weekly Shabbat service. When I queried this with the late American Reform rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus - who, as the prime mover in the establishment of American Jewish Archives (Cincinnati), is widely regarded as the founding father of American-Jewish history - he explained that to include such prayers would be to invite unwanted (not to say mischievous) queries about the patriotism of American Jews.

But it was precisely to underline their own "British" patriotism that Jewish immigrants to this country included prayers for the Royal Family in the Shabbat service. They pointed to precedents that can - it is argued - be traced to Jeremiah: "Seek the peace of the city in which you have been exiled, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its prosperity is your prosperity" (Jeremiah 29:7).

In his 1655 petition to Oliver Cromwell that Jews be permitted to resettle in England, the Amsterdam rabbi Menasseh ben Israel made a point of stressing the prayer that Jews recited for the ruler of the country wherein they lived. And so it was that the custom became embedded not merely in the Anglo-Jewish liturgy but in the very architecture of the Anglo-Jewish synagogue, in which the Prayer for the Royal Family, in Hebrew and English, is invariably to be found incised in ornate carvings erected either side of the Ark.

Is this intentionally ostentatious display of patriotism really necessary? I have been looking at the changing text of this prayer. In my Shavuot machzor, which happens to date from 1849, the Almighty is beseeched to "preserve, guard, assist, exalt, and highly aggrandize" Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Queen Dowager (Victoria's mother) and all the Royal Family. The Supreme King of Kings is further asked to "subdue nations" under Victoria's feet, to "cause her enemies to fall before her", and to "incline" the hearts of all her counsellors "with "benevolence towards us, and all Israel."

This imperialistic not to say jingoistic tone was preserved in Simeon Singer's prayer book (1890) but some acknowledgement of the fact that the monarch was no longer an autocrat was reflected in the exhortation to the Almighty to put "compassion" into Victoria's heart and into the hearts of "her counsellors and nobles." Later still, during the reign of the present monarch, this formulation was amended to "May He put a spirit of wisdom and understanding into her heart and into the hearts of all her counsellors, that they may uphold the peace of the realm, advance the welfare of the nation, and deal kindly and justly with all the House of Israel."

There is a rabbinic maxim that one should not ordinarily ask the Almighty to perform a miracle. Given the appalling intellectual calibre of politicians in recent decades, I doubt whether, even with the best will in the world, it was at all possible to put "a spirit of wisdom" into some of those who have, unfortunately, been appointed by the monarch to positions of authority over us.

A republican I most certainly am not. But I do wonder whether the time has not come for us to ditch - other than in times of grave national emergency - specific prayers for the Royal Family. Our loyalty to the British state surely no longer demands such an advertisement.

November 24, 2016 23:31

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